By MarEx Staff
Tom Bethel, National President of American Maritime Officers (AMO), the largest union of merchant marine officers in the U.S., was raised in Philadelphia by a family that worked the city’s waterfront. His grandfather was captain of the city’s fireboat for twenty years and eventually transitioned to the commercial tugboat-shipdocking industry as a tug captain and docking pilot with McAllister Towing. Two of Bethel’s uncles and a younger brother also worked on commercial tugboats in Philadelphia harbor as tug captains and docking pilots. Tom’s grandfather, two uncles and brother were all members of the Seafarers International Union (SIU). Bethel graduated from SIU’s Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point, Maryland and went to work as a marine engineer in 1974, ultimately earning his Chief Engineer’s license.
Bethel told MarEx that, from the time he began working on boats until he came ashore with the union, there was a major transition in tugboat technology from single-screw boats to twin-screw vessels, which also meant the horsepower increased from approximately 1,600 to 3,000. Since twin-screw technology was new, tug companies would position their twin-screw boats in harbors to accommodate customer need and demand. Bethel stated the tug captains and docking pilots he worked with were highly skilled boat handlers and true masters at ship docking. He also said he was fortunate to work with some great engineers, some of whom had started their careers in the deep-sea sector.
Moving Ashore With the Union
“Life takes you on a journey,” said Bethel, explaining his transition from a tugboat engineer to a union representative. He came ashore to work for the union — District 2 Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) at the time — temporarily in 1982 after serving on negotiating committees. “I always liked people, and I have never been at a loss for words,” Bethel recalled. “After a few months on the job I was offered a full-time position as a representative of the union by the President at the time, Ray McKay. Brooklyn was my base, but I called on vessels and negotiated contracts in ports all along the East and Gulf Coasts.”
In Bethel’s first years at the union, District 2 MEBA was the smallest U.S. maritime officers’ union, but things were beginning to change. “In 1994 District 2 MEBA withdrew from National MEBA, and our name had been changed to American Maritime Officers (AMO),” Bethel explained. “AMO by then represented a sizable number of deck officers and radio-electronics officers — in addition to marine engineers — in the deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters areas, and we were determined to bring in even more licensed seagoing professionals and grow in all domestic and international markets.”
“Our first order of business was to get our contracted employers involved in bidding on government work from Military Sealift Command and the Maritime Administration,” Bethel continued. “It didn’t take very long for AMO to become very successful at crafting competitive but rewarding labor proposals, which enabled these companies to win the majority of these MSC and MARAD charters. These contracts provided hundreds of new jobs for AMO and enabled our union to continue to expand and prosper. To make sure we were able to fill our contractual commitments to man these vessels, AMO recruited steadily from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the six state-operated maritime academies, and we continued our successful strategy of helping unlicensed mariners move up to licensed positions through the Hawsepipe. These policies remain in place, and we are developing additional strategies to ensure a healthy supply of licensed officers down the line.”
Climbing the Hawsepipe
Bethel believes one of the advantages he had in his career was starting at the bottom and working his way up. “You get to work with a lot of smart people,” he said. “You learn the right way to do things. You can also learn a great deal from people who are not so smart, like what not to do. There were a lot of things about union administration that troubled me on my way up, and when I finally got to be President, I was able to institute positive change.”
MarEx asked Bethel to elaborate. He was emphatic about the AMO membership having the right to know everything about how the union operates. “I believe that, because the membership pays my salary and the salaries of all AMO officials, representatives and employees, they have the right to know what is going on in our union — not only financially, but the day-to-day business of the union as well. If you have nothing to hide, you should hide nothing.”
Because AMO members are held to ISO and ISM quality and performance standards and are also required to undergo drug and alcohol testing, Bethel requires the same standards for all AMO officials, representatives and employees. “If our members are subject to these regulations and policies, why should we be subject to anything less?” he said.
Additionally, he instituted an ethics policy, which is posted on the official AMO Web site. “We treat our people exactly as we want to be treated,” he explained. “Therefore, we created an ethics hotline administered by an independent service. If anyone in our union believes that something done in the AMO administration is questionable or inappropriate, they can dial a toll-free number and report this anonymously, and the specific complaint or allegation is investigated. We also reformed our entire expense policy, updated our Web sites, refurbished and increased rent to market rates on every AMO-owned property and built a headquarters building — our first ever — for more efficient service to AMO members and their families. AMO owns its properties outright, is mortgage-free and currently has no legal matters pending. AMO publishes its annual LM-2 financial disclosure reports with the U.S. Department of Labor and its internal financial statements online for review by all AMO members.”
Bethel also hired an independent third-party company (True Ballot) to conduct the union’s secret-ballot elections and policy referenda and adopted reforms that make it easier for AMO members to qualify to vote and to have their ballots count. In addition to ensuring accuracy and impartiality, the reforms encourage greater rank-and-file participation in major AMO policy decisions. One significant difference under the Bethel administration is that no AMO officials, representatives or employees handle, distribute, mail or count ballots.
In addition, Bethel has made easier membership access to AMO officials, representatives and employees a staple of administrative policy. He is, for example, the only maritime union official who has his cell phone number and his personal email address on his business card, on the AMO Web site and in the union’s monthly newspaper.
Pursuing New Avenues of Opportunity
Meanwhile, Bethel is all about procuring new jobs for the membership, and his success is apparent. AMO represents about 4,000 officers sailing in all domestic and international trades, and the Bethel administration is pursuing opportunities beyond those traditionally associated with U.S. merchant mariner employment — jobs provided under the Maritime Security Program, the Jones Act and the cargo preference laws.
“AMO has a dedicated and effective legislative staff in Washington DC, and they have a significant part in the perpetuation of programs like the Maritime Security Program, and in keeping the Jones Act and cargo preference on the federal books,” Bethel said. “But it’s not enough for our union to focus exclusively on Washington as a source of long-term security for AMO members. We have to extend our reach.” Bethel said the exceptional quality of the AMO membership and his administration’s flexibility can attract employers in the U.S. and overseas, but he stressed that innovation requires time and patience.
Bethel explained how a troubling situation some years ago “actually opened doors with international and non-union vessel operators.” When a fleet of U.S.-flagged LNG tankers was re-flagged foreign under competitive pressure in overseas markets more than a decade ago, AMO and the fleet’s operating company, PRONAV Ship Management, reached an agreement that put AMO members in the licensed jobs on the ships for five years. Four years later, as competition intensified, the company was forced by the ships’ owners to terminate the agreement with AMO. Bethel assured PRONAV that the vessels would be turned over in an orderly and professional way by the AMO members aboard them despite the early end to the contract.
“PRONAV knew they could take AMO at its word, and we have maintained an excellent relationship with the company since then,” Bethel said. “PRONAV stepped in recently and helped AMO secure contracts with Teekay and Shell under international flags. PRONAV has also eased preliminary talks between AMO and companies like Transocean and Global.”
MarEx asked about the strategy of an established U.S. maritime union pursuing labor agreements with merchant vessel operating companies under international flags and with non-union offshore energy support service providers in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Bethel said the declining value of the dollar and a growing worldwide shortage of qualified merchant marine officers had helped AMO establish a presence in international markets, but he emphasized that the “expertise of AMO members and the union’s growing reputation for responsible, practical administration play huge parts in the equation.”
Bethel said non-union vessel operating companies do not have to sign contracts directly with AMO “if that is a concern.” He explained that AMO “has a marketing agreement in place with PRONAV, which would serve as the vessel manager for these companies.” He added: “AMO is flexible and willing to negotiate competitive contracts that recognize and reflect operating conditions — we can balance the needs of the AMO membership with the needs of companies willing to employ the world’s finest licensed merchant mariners.”
Bethel noted that new companies signing contracts with AMO would not be “burdened” by the unsustainable cost and the liability risk associated with defined benefit pension plans. “All new AMO employers would participate in a defined contribution retirement savings plan,” he said. “AMO is also willing to submit resumes, arrange interviews and allow companies the right of selection in hiring, in much the same way U.S.-flagged merchant vessel operators today have the right to assign officers to senior positions. We can provide training to meet the specific needs of specific companies at STAR Center (Simulation, Training, Assessment and Research).”
Bethel said the seafaring world has changed dramatically since he came ashore with AMO in the mid-1980s. He noted as an example that today’s licensed officers are required to earn as many as 35 U.S. Coast Guard documents certifying proficiency in specific disciplines and must endure rigorous vetting by the Coast Guard, extensive physical exams and drug-testing. The only positive difference, he said, is “the work schedule in some cases — it used to be that officers worked for up to six months, but the rotations now are down to four months. In some cases, officers work 60 days on and 60 days off.”
American Maritime Officers relocated from Brooklyn to Dania Beach, Florida in 1992. The sprawling AMO Plans complex near AMO headquarters can house and feed about 250 AMO members and their families when these union members are in Dania Beach for training or license upgrading. Amenities include swimming pools, tennis courts, a fully equipped gymnasium and recreation room and a clinic for required physicals and other needs.
“It’s all part of STAR Center, which includes world-class, full-mission ship simulator technology as well as such courses as welding and refrigeration,” Bethel said. “We provide instruction in firefighting and small arms with ‘hands-on’ exercise at nearby sites. STAR Center also has a waterfront base for fast rescue boat training, and the center is developing courses in dynamic positioning — we already have a substantial number of members who are qualified for DP work, and we will make DP training available to all AMO members within the next several months.”
Despite what some folks say about the state of the shipping industry, Bethel sees a bright future for AMO with lots of opportunities. About his own future, he muses that if someone had told him as a kid growing up in Philadelphia that he would start out as an unlicensed SIU mariner and someday become President of AMO, the largest officers’ union in the nation, he never would have believed it. He’s achieved more than he ever imagined, and he intends to keep building a strong organization for his membership. – MarEx